McHenry County Board gets pep talk from U.K. ambassador

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WOODSTOCK – Before embarking on its long-term planning meeting, the McHenry County Board got a rare pep talk from Her Majesty’s Government.

Stephen Bridges, the U.K. consul general for the island nation’s Chicago consulate, spent almost an hour Thursday morning addressing the board’s Committee of the Whole before its retreat to review its strategic plan.

His first piece of advice was a poignant one that the political elite of both nations learned the hard way last year – listen to the people. The election of President Donald Trump and the successful “Brexit” referendum to pull the U.K. out of the European Union were outcomes that most politicians, pundits and other experts did not expect.

“Recognize the mood of the people right now, because I think our politicians on either side, and I’m not going to get into partisan politics, but certainly in my country, they got it horribly wrong,” Bridges said. “They just did not get the mood of the people.”

In one of many lighthearted moments, Bridges thanked the County Board and the U.S. in general for the November election “deflecting the political attention of the world from my country to yours.”

Bridges is the senior official at the Chicago consulate, one of eight the U.K. maintains in the U.S. As the U.K.’s representative, he is responsible for consular, visa and trade activities in Illinois and 13 other states.

He was invited by County Board Chairman Jack Franks, D-Marengo, to “open the curtains and remove the coverings a little bit” regarding the U.K.’s relationship with Illinois and the Midwest. Bridges accompanies Franks and his father on their annual Canadian fishing trip, where Bridges joked he learns more about forestry management for climbing trees to retrieve expensive lures he inadvertently casts into the wood-line instead of into the water.

Much of the consulate’s work deals with U.K. businesses located in the U.S., which held the interest of a County Board looking to increase its own business base.

“It’s all about jobs; it’s all about growth. Any of this sound familiar to you guys? It’s the same agenda that you have, that I have, that my government has – it’s about doing the right thing for our folks and making us wealthier,” Bridges said.

The U.K. is by far the largest foreign investor in the U.S. The most recent report from the Confederation of British Industry pegs the total at $449 billion – U.K. businesses account for more than 1 million U.S. jobs. Bridges said that between 50,000 and 75,000 Illinois residents are employed by U.K. companies.

That business relationship between the two nations is very likely to increase as the U.K. exits the EU, Bridges said.

Bridges gave one more tip to the County Board in the wake of the election.

“There is a large caucus in your country now that is prophesying doom and destruction and the end of your world, and let me give you a little message from across the pond and your closest pals – you are still the most important nation on Earth. You are still the most important economy on Earth. You still have more cultural resonance than any other nation, any other polity and any other society on Earth,” Bridges said.

The County Board will meet again Friday for a second and final day to hash out its strategic plan, which it revises every three or four years. The last revision was in 2013.